I didn't plan my comeback. It wasn't like, "OK, I'll take a year off and then I'll come back." For me, it was basically a new chapter: working with Specialized's mountain bike team, with the engineers, and as a Specialized brand ambassador. I really liked it. Personally, I still got a good adrenaline kick when my riders were racing at the World Cup, the world championships or the Olympics. It would have been difficult to stop racing and start an office job and not have that adrenalin any more!
But the Cape Epic is the Tour de France of mountain biking, that's how I always describe it. It's definitely the challenge that brings me back. And knowing that with Jaro [Jaroslav Kulhavy] I have an established winning partner as well as having the very best team and equipment behind me. I wouldn't have made a serious comeback if I didn't see a big chance to win.
Obviously, after a year of no serious racing and no serious training, there was a question mark over whether I would be able to get back to my best level. I waited until after the three-day Wines2Whales stage race last November, and when I saw that I was very quickly getting so much momentum and shape, that was the ultimate decision.
The Epic is the hardest mountain bike race to win because there is no other race over eight days with so much competition. Every pro can easily finish the Epic within the time cut-off, but it's all about the competition and how fast they're going.
The terrain is also tough enough that you know you're going to have mechanicals. Yes, you could ride the Epic mechanical-free – just ride it very conservatively, using the safest material you can get – but nobody would win like that.
The most common issue is always a flat tyre. The problem at the Epic is if there are already thorns in your tyre and you can't plug it, you have to put in a tube. And if there are 50 thorns in that tyre, even if you take them all out, there's a good chance that you're going to ride into more. Out of all the millions of rocks you ride over, you only need that one to cut your tyre so badly that you can't plug it, and it's all over.
Of course, there's also the danger that a crash can take you out. At every Epic, someone has to go home because of a crash. The drama just never ends.
Sure, you think about your competitors, but until the prologue on Sunday I prefer to concentrate on myself and our team. You don't want to spend too much energy thinking about what the other guys are doing, following them on Strava and all that stuff. I'd rather focus on them once the race is on. As soon as the race starts, you'll know who your rivals are, who's giving you a hard time and who isn't.
At the prologue, everybody goes flat out whether you think you can win it or not. You can make at a point at the prologue, but you're not going to win the Epic there. If you go well, it can be cool for your confidence; if you don't, you start doubting and wondering if you're now going to suffer for the next seven days.
There's no one stage that's really a red flag for me. But it will be hectic on Stage 1 on Monday. There won't be any hierarchy in the peloton yet, so on the first day or two, there's always carnage.
Even if you're feeling your best ever, even if you're set up with the best equipment ever, it can all go up in smoke in one corner.
So you really don't want to have bad luck. Luck is everything at the Epic, like in so many other sports. Except swimming. I've been thinking about it: why does a swimmer ever get nervous? He jumps in, performs, then gets out. There are no excuses, no external factors that can affect you!
Jaro and I took a look at the prologue course on Saturday morning, then had lunch, did the final packing, had a nap, did the final final packing, then will have dinner and go to bed. On Sunday morning, I'll wake up, do half an hour on the rollers, and have breakfast.
Probably the most nervous moment is when I leave home, my safe haven, and drive to the race start at Meerendal Wine Estate. But once I am at the venue, I'm calm and focused. Then it is GO TIME!
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